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Thursday, April 13, 2000

Grandparents lose custody to mother of five
By Jerry Reed
Reporter-News Staff Writer

An Abilene couple’s five young grandchildren were ordered returned to the temporary custody of their mother Wednesday in the latest development in a long and controversial custody battle.

Houston family court Judge Linda Motherall entered the temporary order in a hearing Wednesday that had been resumed from last month. Joy Coates is to pick up her five children next Wednesday. Her sixth and eldest child, 19-year-old Shanna, had been living with Joy Coates in recent weeks.

The five minor children — Amy, Gretta, Brianna, Isaac and Melissa — range in age from 5 to 16.

Custody of the children had been a source of bitter conflict between the children’s mother and paternal grandparents, Ed and Jane Coates, for more than 3 1/2 years. At one point, the mother dropped from sight with her children, until last Thanksgiving when she and the children were removed by Guatemalan national police from a remote mountain village in that Central American nation and returned to the United States.

In Joy Coates’ absence, Ed and Jane Coates had won a default judgment granting them custody of their grandchildren, and Joy Coates was later indicted for interference with child custody. On her return to the United States from Guatemala, she was jailed on bonds totaling $3 million and remained in custody until her bail was reduced to $30,000 in January. Criminal charges were dismissed in February.

The judge’s decision left the grandparents technically as managing conservators of the children, with a June 26 hearing set to check progress in resolving remaining issues leading to permanently reuniting the children with their mother.

Motherall ordered the parties to continue negotiations while they review health, education and financial plans submitted Tuesday by Joy Coates in response to an earlier order.

On Wednesday evening, Joy Coates said she plans to home-school her children, who have attended Taylor Elementary School since December. The quality of previous home-schooling provided the children had been questioned by the grandparents, though they said they had nothing against home schooling.

Tom Sanders, Joy Coates’ attorney, said the children’s medical and dental needs had been met in Guatemala, and would continue to be met by their mother.

Joy Coates declined to talk about financial provision for her children.

Visitation issues also remained to be hammered out.

Hovering over the Coates case is a pending U.S. Supreme Court case from Washington state on the issue of grandparental rights.

Neal Coates, son of Ed and Jane Coates and brother-in-law of Joy Coates, said he discounts chances of the Washington case affecting the Coates family situation because that state’s grandparental rights statute, and the case itself, are atypical.

He is a licensed attorney who teaches at Abilene Christian University. His father also teaches at ACU, and his mother is a retired ACU faculty member.

But Houston attorney Warren Cole, who represents Ed and Jane Coates, said Washington and Texas laws on grandparental rights are similar, so the high court’s decision could well affect the Coates case.

Ellen Yarrell, a court-appointed attorney for the five children, said a parent’s right to her children is a bedrock constitutional principle, one requiring a high burden of proof to disturb.

“(Joy) and Nathan had an intact marriage … they had an intact family,’’ she said. “Unfortunately for the entire family, he died of cancer’’ in March 1996.

Yarrell said Ed and Jane Coates seemed not to have resolved their own grief over their son’s death during their struggles to find and gain legal custody of their grandchildren. The couple spent more than $200,000 on the investigation that led to the discovery of the six children after 3¤ years.

She said she does not believe Joy Coates made a good decision in disappearing with her children in 1996 while a petition seeking guaranteed grandparental visitation was pending in court. But, she added, she doesn’t believe that decision legally justified a Harris County Court in granting custody by default after Ed and Jane Coates amended their petition.

She said it immediately became obvious to her when she met the family that “each one of those children want to be with their mother.’’

After Wednesday’s hearing, Ed Coates said he and his wife are pleased with the court’s action.

“The children will not be hidden. We feel that we understand what their immediate future will be,” Neal Coates quoted his father as saying after the hearing.

Since February, the couple has allowed Joy Coates, daughter of Grady Jolly of Abilene, to have several unsupervised weekend visits with the children in Abilene. Also during that time, Joy Coates has rented and furnished a house in Katy, a suburb on the west side of Houston.

Neal Coates said his parents were glad that Joy had settled in Katy.

“They do not want to keep these children away from their mom,’’ he said.

Neal Coates said he believes that his extended family and Joy are now working toward reconciliation.

He said his parents are very thankful to their fellow church members and the staff at Taylor Elementary School, who welcomed the five children and helped them greatly. He also said several people helped his sister-in-law find a house and furniture.

Joy Coates attributed the pending return of her children to prayers offered by people all over the world in her behalf. Some of them had kept abreast of her situation by e-mail and on an Internet Web site devoted to the case.

“God is the one who is to be honored in all this,’’ she said. “I am a very unimportant and insignificant person. I want to give all the credit to him.’’

Contact Jerry Reed at 676-6769 or reedj@abinews.com.

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